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Entertaining Mill Workers

The lives of Victorian mill workers were far from easy. Fines, beatings, maiming and even death, were commonplace.

However, after a series of laws were passed, which aimed to improve the mill workers’ lives and reduce the working day, what did they do with their free time?

Victorian Staycation

The Hotel Metropole in Blackpool as viewed from the north shore with holidaymakers on the beach in the foreground. It was built sometime during (or just after) the 1860s. A number of bathing huts are lined up on the beach for potential swimmers. Photo © Historic EnglandArchive

We all love that holiday feeling, getting to leave our working week behind for a well-deserved break. Mill workers were no different. Although they weren’t given annual leave like we are today, there was one time of the year when they could take some well-deserved rest.

The holiday was known as ‘Wakes Week’, and it was a time of year that mills shut down, allowing the mills to service machinery.

Thanks to the expansion of the railways, many mill workers opted for the seaside or local attractions, with the little money they’d saved throughout the year. It was within this period that the classic Victorian seaside holiday was created and embraced. Many of the seaside towns developed thanks to the number of mill workers visiting during ‘Wakes Week’, as a trip to the seaside provided affordable holidaying to the working classes like never before.

A drink with friends

Barmen and seated customers posed in a room at the Shakespeare Tavern, more commonly known as Bragg’s Vaults or Bragg’s Wine Cellar, located beneath the Theatre Royal, Birmingham. Photo © Historic England Archive

Taverns, Beerhouses, bars, pubs, whatever they’ve been called over the centuries, they’ve been a part of British society for hundreds of years. Many of us enjoy nothing more than grabbing a drink after work with friends, which is something many mill workers enjoyed too.

Beerhouses, where mill workers would have enjoyed a drink, would have been the territory of men (it was believed to be improper for women to drink in pubs until the 20th century). Many of its patrons would have sought the comfort of the beerhouse as a welcome alternative to poor housing. It is recorded that some mill workers in Manchester were crammed into windowless cellars with up to 15 in one room.

The beerhouses also offered the opportunity for entertainment. Activities included bowls, singing, or even concerts and small-scale theatrical performances, which women were permitted to attend.

However, some within society were concerned about the effect drinking was having on the workers within the mills. In a bid to improve behaviour, New Lanark Mills placed coloured markers at each mill worker’s work area to track their behaviour. These ranged from black for ‘bad’ behaviour to white for ‘good’ behaviour.

Some mill owners would fine or discipline workers for turning up drunk. In contrast, others took it upon themselves to create alternative establishments, building their own alcohol-free ‘clubs’.

The Great Outdoors

Soaking up the sunshine and exploring green open spaces can do wonders for our health. This was an idea that was starting to take off in the Victorian period.

Some more philanthropic and socially minded members of society wanted to provide open spaces for everyone to benefit from. Corporation Park in Blackburn is one such example of this. Given the often dirty, overcrowded spaces around the mill, it was also in the mill owner’s interests to keep their workforce healthy. Some mill owners even created public parks of their own, such as Farnworth Park in Bolton and Roberts Park in Bradford.

Lister Park in Bradford originated from land sold to the Bradford Corporation, at a reduced rate, by the owner of Listers Mill, on the condition that they used it to build a public park.

Sir Titus Salt, the owner of Salt’s Mill, not only built a park for his mill workforce, but an entire town! He built Saltaire in Bradford, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This included a large park for workers to enjoy after a hard day’s work, alms-houses, a community centre, decent workers housing and its own reservoir.

Broadside ballads’ were a popular form of music in the Victorian period and would have been an everyday part of mill workers’ lives.

They were called broadsides as they were only one piece of paper, so they were cheap enough for the everyday worker to afford and keep up with the latest songs. They were a popular form of entertainment and were usually set to a well-known tune, so they were easy for people to learn and sing along to.

The ballads were also a quick and effective way of spreading news throughout the community. Whether political happenings, gruesome murders or big news stories, they helped create a form of Victorian ‘industrial folk music’.

The ballads also reflected the mill workers’ lives who wrote songs and poems about life in the mill, their work, and their experiences. “Poverty Knock” is one such example, about working with the noisy looms in the mill, reflecting the challenging working conditions: “up every morning at five, I wonder that we keep-alive”. These ballads and poems allow us a moving and sobering glimpse into the difficult daily toil at the mill.

Read a Good Book

Reading is a pastime many of us take great pleasure in, but for many mill workers within the Victorian period, access to books or even the ability to read would have been a luxury.

Robert Owen, a social reformer and mill owner, was a big believer in improving the lives of his workers. He was one of the leading campaigners for mass education, shorter working days and an age restriction on employability of children – all of which were included in The Factory Act 1819.

Even before the 1819 Act was passed, Owen used his own mills in New Lanark to set an example of how mill owners could improve their workers’ lives. Fellow mill owners, ambassadors and even royalty visited to see the example set by Owen. The school he set up used the hall for lectures and performances, music and dancing for workers and even held evening classes for the adult workforce.

The owners of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, the Greg family, also actively encouraged literacy within the workforce. Wanting to give their employees a place to socialise away from the temptations of drink, they established the Styal Club Room. This offered various entertainment from lectures to theatrical performances. Most importantly, it had a well-stocked library, which was a great success among the mill workers.

Thanks to the push for greater education in the 19th century, the books were enjoyed by all the workforce, including women and children, who were welcome to use the library. However, they were not allowed to be members of the club itself.

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